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The Progressive Dilemma on Syria

David Callahan

How to handle Syria is the toughest call President Obama has yet faced -- a dilemma where two core progressive values stand in profound tension. 

That tension is clear if we walk through a best case scenario, and then look at a worst case. 

The best case goes like this: The U.S. and its allies decides to use all their military power, short of ground forces, to unseat Assad. They launch a devastating air attack on the regime and its assets -- targeting individual leaders, government facilities, communication networks, and military units in the field. NATO forces coordinate with Syrian rebels, with western air power providing tactical support that enables the rebels to turn the tables on the ground. In a matter of months, Assad's regime lies in ruins, many of his top officials are dead, and he finally flees Damascus as the rebels achieve victory. Over the next year, a provisional government stabilizes the country and puts it on the road to democracy. 

This outcome would be a huge victory for the liberal internationalist ideal that the unjust and brutal exercise of power should never be tolerated by civilized nations.

Yet consider a worst case: The United States and it's allies intervene, but Assad manages to hang on and civil war burns in Syria for years to come -- a permanent humanitarian catastrophe. Meanwhile, the specter of another American intervention in the Middle East further mobilizes Islamist militants worldwide, providing fresh justification for America's vast security state. The financial tab for U.S. military action in Syria climbs into the tens of billions at the same time that the federal government is making harsh cuts to safety net programs. 

This outcome would confirm the progressive suspicion about U.S. military intervention, which is that it often just makes things worst while draining resources away from pressing needs at home. 

Beyond this pointed quandary for progressives, Syria poses a larger strategic dilemma for the United States. Should we be in the business of stopping bad things from happening worldwide? Should we remain deeply enmeshed in the Middle East? Do we want to continue being a "warfare state?"

Or should we be transitioning to become a "trading state," focusing on bolstering our economic strength amid the rise of China, India, and other countries?

One reason that Obama has so resisted intervening in Syria is that he has wanted to draw down the U.S. presence in the Middle East and focus on Asia, a region of far significance for America's future. 

This really is a problem from hell. 

Ultimately, though, my own view is that there are some things that democratic nations simply cannot let happen in the world. And Assad's war against his own people, now with chemical weapons, falls into that category. 

Taking out Assad may not work. And removing him might simply pave the way to a sectarian civil war. But we can't simply do nothing.